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Europe: Britain's Election Likely To Unseat Conservatives

By Start Parrott

London, 28 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Britons go to the polls on Thursday for a general election that looks likely to unseat the ruling Conservative Party after a record 18 years of unbroken rule.

With days to go before the vote, opinion polls show that the opposition Labour Party led by Tony Blair has a commanding lead over the ruling Conservative Party headed by Prime Minister John Major.

For weeks now the polls have shown that Labour has about 50 percent support, the Conservatives 30 percent and the third-ranking party, the Liberal Democrats, 12 percent. However, backing for the Conservatives is likely to strengthen in the final days before the poll.

The Conservatives are a center-right party that speaks primarily for the middle classes, private business and commerce. Labour is a center-left party which traditionally represents industrial workers, trade unions and the lower-paid.

The "London Observer" says that if the opinion polls are right, Labour can expect the largest parliamentary majority held by any party in living memory. Never has one party been so far ahead in the last weeks of the campaign: Polls at the weekend suggest a Labour majority in the House of Commons (lower house) of just below 200 seats.

However, the opinion polls got it badly wrong at the last election when they predicted a Labour victory and Conservative strategists point out that ten percent of voters still have not made up their minds. If all of these were to opt for the Conservatives, it is possible there would be a "hung" parliament -- that is, one in which no party has a majority.

The bookmakers, whose record in forecasting election results is better than the pollsters, predict a Labour majority of 40 to 50 seats.

The Conservatives have fallen from favor despite the fact that most economic indicators look good. The British economy is now one of the strongest in Europe, unemployment is half the rate of Germany and France, and incomes have been rising much faster than inflation. Britons, says one commentator, have never been so prosperous.

Why then do voters want a change? Many are disenchanted with the Conservatives after 18 years in office and feel that power concentrated in the hands of a single party for too long is bad for democracy. Asked how they intend to vote, many Britons say: "It's time for a change."

The Conservatives have become increasingly unpopular for a variety of reasons. The party is deeply divided over the issue of future relations with Europe. Its reputation for economic competence took a huge blow when the pound sterling was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System in September, 1992. And trust in Conservative claims to be a tax-cutting party was shaken by the huge tax increases and serious recession brought about by this reversal.

The Conservative Party is also deeply divided over the issue of Britain's future relationship with the European Union. Major has said he will never take Britain into a single European currency without a referendum; and that he opposes any further moves towards European federalism. However, many legislators in his party are far more Euro-skeptical: they reject what they see as the loss of British sovereignty to an over-centralized, and highly bureaucratic European superstate, with real power transferred to the Brussels-based European Commission.

The Conservative Party's divisions over Europe are so deep that, in the event of an election loss, some commentators predict that the party could split into pro- and anti-European wings.

The Conservatives have also been damaged by allegations about corruption, embarrassing disclosures on food safety, and financial and sexual scandals involving ministers or their close associates.

The most serious scandal, known as the "cash for questions" affair, centers on allegations that Conservative legislators were paid by lobbyists or businessmen to ask questions in parliament.

The Major government has also been undermined by the "mad cow" crisis a year ago when eating infected British beef was linked to 10 deaths of people suffering from a rare brain disease. Major was accused of covering up the seriousness of the disease affecting Britain's cattle, and of backing his unpopular agriculture minister Douglas Hogg.

Above all, critics fault the Conservatives' uneven handling of the economy which, despite its present buoyant health, has gone through two severe recessions in their 18 years of power. Many voters are in a mood to see if a Labour finance minister can handle things better.

The Conservative government's competency has been in doubt since "Black Wednesday", the September day in 1992 when it was forced to pull the pound sterling, then plunging in value, out of the European Monetary System which links exchange rates. This was a severe personal humiliation for Major, who led Britain into the EMS, because it marked the collapse of the government's entire economic policy.

In the event, the move made British exports more competitive in the long-run, and paved the way for economic recovery. But critics say this economic success came about more through luck than good judgment. They say the EMS debacle illustrated that Major's leadership is weak and vacillating although polls show that Major is more popular than is party: he is widely seen as decent and honest.

The opposition Labour Party has lost the last four elections (1979, 1983, 1987, 1992), largely because it was perceived by many voters as being made up of left-wing extremists, wedded to old fashioned socialist dogma and under the sway of over mighty trade union leaders.

Many older Britons still remember the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 when the last Labour Government was blamed for crippling industrial strikes, raging inflation and a collapsing pound -- a syndrome that earned Britain the unenviable title of "The Sick Man of Europe."

Those were the days when militant public sector workers brought the country to a standstill by leaving rubbish to pile in the streets and refusing to dispose of bodies at cemeteries and crematoria.

Why are Britons prepared to give Labour another chance? Labour, under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and now Tony Blair has reinvented itself, moving to the centre-ground of British politics, and dumping many of the socialist policies that proved so unpopular with voters.

Blair, in particular, has transformed Labour's high-spending, high taxation image into one of a modern pro-business, fiscally prudent party that can be trusted to run a modern economy. In a blatant (albeit effective) marketing ploy, Blair has renamed the party New Labour -- with a raft of moderate policies. Blair is a charismatic and articulate lawyer, who, at 43, is 10 years younger than Major. One analyst says: "His deftness at communicating youthfulness and change is a big plus."

Blair has also sought to widen the party's working class appeal to include a broader cross-section of society. Labour -- founded by the unions at the turn of the century to represent blue collar workers -- still has its strongest roots in the industrial regions, and among public sector workers, teachers and local government officers. But Blair has brought new blood into the party by recruiting 100,000 fresh members.

The clearest sign of Blair's determination to modernize came with his campaign to persuade the party to drop its old Clause Four from its constitution that committed Labour to state ownership of industry.

One commentator says Clause Four has been a propaganda weapon beyond price for the Conservatives. At the past four elections, they have been able to seize on Clause Four as evidence that Labour was speaking nonsense in claiming to be a modern party with faith in the market.

But Blair managed to persuade the party faithful to ditch Clause Four -- but not without a bitter fight. Many older members, including those who are fiercely proud of Labour's socialist roots, accused him of a cynical readiness to ditch any principle in his drive to win power.

"What does New Labour stand for?" is a common criticism. Blair's carefully-orchestrated drive towards the center-ground of politics has brought many complaints from the traditional left-wing supporters of Labour. Trade union leaders have been angered by internal party reforms that have lessened union influence in Labour's affairs, and distanced the party from its industrial wing. Critics both inside and outside the party wonder if all the modernizing has left Labour with a true core of belief. Critics say that in reassuring middle class voters, Labour has moved closer to the policies of the government it condemns.

In his speeches, Blair has sounded very different from traditional Labour leaders. He often sounds more like a Conservative with his emphasis on gaining confidence of the voters that he most needs: the middle classes. They tend to be cautious, and older ones, remembering Labour's last administration, fear that a new Labour government will introduce policies aimed at redistributing wealth to the poor.

Blair denies this. He has pledged that taxes will not rise under Labour; there will be no return to the heavy taxation and high public spending of the 1970s; and there will be no renationalisation of privatized enterprises. He says he will not reverse the Conservatives' firm trade union laws introduced by Thatcher. This has brought criticism that he is the most right-wing Labour leader in history

In the run-up to the election, Blair has said he will be far more radical in office than people expect. He has outlined a number of sweeping constitutional changes: including self-government for Scotland, and reform of Britain' upper house of parliament, the unelected House of Lords. He also takes pains to sound much more European-friendly than Major. His party is bound by a commitment to join the single European currency when economic conditions allow. Whereas Major has promised to veto any reduction of British sovereignty at the Amsterdam EU summit in seven weeks' time, Blair has said he is ready to give up Britain's veto in key policy areas.

Blair has also said he will sign up Britain in the EU's Social Charter, which sets out guarantees for workers, and also introduce a minimum wage. The Conservatives flatly reject both these measures.

Critics of Blair say he is untrustworthy and will say, or do, anything to get his party elected. They say that he has shifted his party's position on privatization, trade union recognition and Europe. They also say he has run a scare mongering campaign, particularly, by frightening elderly people with his claim that the Conservatives plan to scrap state pensions.

Critics also say that Labour internal reform's have not gone far enough to inspire confidence. They say that the trade unions still hold 50 percent of the votes at the party's annual conference, and give financial help to some two-thirds of Labour parliamentarians. In the event of a Labour victory, they say, the trade unions, particularly in the public sector, will expect to be rewarded -- by the award of higher pay to public sector workers, something that could lead to higher inflation.

Although the polls show a huge Labour victory, Major says they are wrong -- and that the Conservatives still have a chance of winning an unprecedented fifth election. Major confounded the critics at the last election by winning against all expectations. If he were to do so again, he would earn his title "the Comeback Kid". But, if, as seems much more likely, voters reject the Conservatives, Major is certain to step down as party leader. By next week, his political career could be over.